The "Wolf Man" is the name Freud gives to Sergei Pankejeff, a patient whom Freud treated from 1910 to 1914. The dream that the Wolf Man recounts and Freud's analysis of it become (along with Freud's Irma dream described in "The Interpretation of Dreams") one of the foundational studies of dream interpretation and psychotherapy.
I dreamt that it was night and that I was lying in my bed. (My bed stood with its foot
towards the window; in front of the window there was a row of old walnut trees. I
know it was winter when I had the dream, and night-time.) Suddenly the window
opened of its own accord, and I was terrified to see that some white wolves were
sitting on the big walnut tree in front of the window. There were six or seven of them
The wolves were quite white, and looked more like foxes or sheep-dogs, for they had
big tails like foxes and they had their ears pricked like dogs when they pay attention
to something. In great terror, evidently of being eaten up by the wolves, I screamed
and woke up. My nurse hurried to my bed, to see what had happened to me. It took
quite a long while before I was convinced that it had only been a dream; I had had
such a clear and life-like picture of the window opening and the wolves sitting on
the tree. At last I grew quieter, felt as though I had escaped from some danger, and
went to sleep again.
Through his analysis of this narrative and some other anecdotes from the Wolf Man's youth, Freud concludes that the dream was the result of the Wolf Man witnessing a "primal scene" - "he witnessed a coitus a tergo, three times repeated: he was was able to see his mother's genitals as well as his father's organ; and he understood the process as well as its significance."
We were initially curious about Freud's insistence on the central importance of this primal scene over what we thought were similarly important possibilities for libidinal investment: the boy's obvious fascination with Nanya, the absence of any discussion of a relationship with his mother, the teasing he received from his sister, and the strange formulation of feeling "proud and blissful" when walking with his father to survey the sheep. We wondered how the primal scene might be overdetermined in Freud's reading of the dream: why did so much refer back to this scene when there seemed to have been perfectly good alternatives? The Little Red Riding Hood stories helped us to think through some of these associations as we questioned the status of that primal scene in Freud's account.
One of the other tensions we tried teasing out this morning was Freud's early resistances to thinking through the aggressive possibilities of the libido. Having started with Civilization and Its Discontents, we knew that Freud would eventually get there, but it was interesting to read this earlier work and see Freud struggle with the role of violence in these anecdotes. The death of the sheep, the father's chopping of the snake, the threat of punishment were all reduced in some way to a sexual economy that seemed ill-equipped to cope with aggression. This sense of the entanglement of sexual and aggressive tension carried over into our reading of the fairy tales as well. We concluded by considering the work of dream interpretation and the relationship between desire and artistic production. This conversation was cut a bit short, and I think we struggled in some way to ground our thoughts in a text or concrete examples; but we were trying in some way to account for the way that artistic production permits a kind of release for desires that would otherwise be repressed or forbidden. The variations of Little Red Riding Hood provided some way to think through this possibility, but we struggled to articulate how this process might work and what its limitations might be.
It was a wonderful way to spend a snowy Sunday morning and has provided me with a wonderful distraction as the girls play (loudly) with their castle on the floor next to me. Some cursory reading has suggested that it might be useful to peruse Lacan and Zizek to see how they have responded to Freud's Wolf Man reading. At the moment, though, I am looking forward to taking up Deleuze and Guattari's treatment in A Thousand Plateaus once the girls go to bed, and I might try to track down the graphic novel based on the Wolf Man, featured here by The Guardian.
*All quotations are taken from Sigmund Freud, The Freud Reader, Ed. Peter Gay (NY: W. W. Norton Company, 1989), 400-426.